Nongovernmental organizations or NGOs, sometimes called civil society organizations, exist around the world. They play important roles including in the areas of education, infrastructure, advocacy, faith, health care and so much more. NGOs often step in when there are humanitarian crises. They can — and do — provide food for the starving, shelter for those with none, medical care for those in dire need and the strong defense of human rights.

When Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban in August 2021, human rights organizations (and others) were worried that the gains made in women’s rights in the previous two decades would disappear. In spite of assertions made by Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid that women’s rights would be respected, human rights groups were right to be concerned. 

Women and girls have seen their rights continually eroded — re-eroded — since the Taliban takeover. Girls and women may now only appear in public with a male chaperone, they must wear a burqa, completely covering them from head to toe, they are banned from parks and gyms and are restricted from most jobs. In March, girls were prohibited from attending secondary school and just over a week ago, the Taliban banned women from attending universities, effective immediately. Some believe the order also bans girls from attending primary school, instituting a total ban on all female education. 

On Saturday, the Taliban also prohibited women from attending religious classes at mosques in Kabul and ordered all nongovernmental organizations to immediately cease working with female employees. At least seven NGOs, including Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Islamic Relief, Christian Aid, World Vision and AfghanAid, have suspended operations in Afghanistan in response to the move. Women protesters have been met with water cannons, batons and more.

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A Taliban fighter stands guard as a woman walks past in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Dec. 26, 2022. Recent Taliban rulings on Afghan women include bans on university education and working for NGOs, sparking protests in major cities. Security in the capital Kabul has intensified in recent days, with more checkpoints, armed vehicles and Taliban special forces on the streets. Authorities have not given a reason for the tougher security. | Ebrahim Noroozi, Associated Press

A former female Afghan lawmaker, Fawzia Koofi, told PBS on Sunday that the Taliban have issued dozens of decrees and edicts to “eliminate and literally erase women from the public sphere” — and that includes aid work.

Samira Sayed Rahman, a spokesperson for the International Rescue Committee, with 3,000 female employees in Afghanistan, said in an interview with The Guardian: “We have 28 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, but the de facto authorities made the decision that women cannot work in national and international NGOs. It is practically impossible to continue our work without female staff. This is a conservative society and we need female workers to access women. This is a country where men and women do not interact in the public space. We would be cut off from half of Afghanistan.” What happens when the helpers aren’t allowed to help?

The United Nations Security Council issued a unanimous statement on Dec. 27, expressing its “deep alarm” at the prohibition on girls attending school and further, is “profoundly profoundly concerned by reports that the Taliban have banned female employees of non-governmental organizations and international organizations from going to work.” 

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U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, called the latest move by the Taliban to prevent women for working with relief organizations “unfathomable,” and would have “terrible consequences for women and all Afghan people.” 

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“The ban will significantly impair, if not destroy, the capacity of these NGOs to deliver the essential services on which so many vulnerable Afghans depend. It is all the more distressing with Afghanistan in the grip of winter, when we know humanitarian needs are at their greatest and the work these NGOs do is all the more critical,” Türk said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that he is “deeply concerned that the Taliban’s ban on women delivering humanitarian aid in Afghanistan will disrupt vital and life-saving assistance to millions. Women are central to humanitarian organizations around the world. This decision could be devastating for the Afghan people.”  

The Taliban doesn’t much care what the international community has to say. “Those organizations operative in Afghanistan are obliged to comply with the laws and regulations of our country,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted Sunday, warning U.S. officials to stop interfering in the “internal matters” of Afghanistan. “We do not permit anyone to talk rubbish or make threats regarding the decisions of our leaders under the title of humanitarian aid.”

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.

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